Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Black Man's (and Woman's) Burden: Making White People Comfortable in Discussions on Race (Part 2)

African Americans are a big part of the “issue” (read: problem) in discussions about race.

There are definitely times when we are our own worst enemies.

Below are the three primary ways in which we collude in the “plantation dynamics” that oftentimes occur in interactions between African Americans and whites . . . especially as they relate to conversations about race.

• Being the defenders of “our” white people when other African Americans or people of color challenge them on manifesting white privilege.

African Americans (and other people of color) oftentimes jump to the ready to defend those white people they consider friends and family from other African Americans who challenge them. No matter how obvious the manifestation of white privilege –- verbal or behavioral –- they will play the role of defender, battling any other person of color who dares challenge their white friend, with all the passion and activism they never exhibit in the fight for racial justice and for the interest of their people.

Sadly, instead of the white person then having the opportunity to honestly engage and grow through the exchange, they are content “hiding” behind their friendship with the person of color who is championing them, and the focus deflects from the white offender’s comment/action to the two African Americans (or other people of color) engaging in a verbal display that does nothing to enlighten anyone or resolve the original issue and everything to validate the white person who initiated it.

And this is different from the “enslaver/enslaved” relationship how? The only difference I see is that now it is voluntary.

• Discounting history when building relationships with whites in Amerikkka.

As quiet as it is kept, there have always been relationships between African Americans and whites, even during times of enslavement, Black Codes, Jim Crow -- all the way up to James Crow Esq. “Friendships” between African Americans and whites are nothing new.

What IS new is the way African Americans have developed a collective amnesia -–the flip side of the kind that whites have developed -– about racial history. At every other time in this country’s history Africans and their descendants have understood the context in which their “friendships” developed -- i.e., that everything between Africans/African Americans and whites was within the parameters of a white supremacist structure that left them in unequal and vulnerable positions. Yet today we buy into the myth that “friendships” between African Americans and whites are “equal” because the chains resulting from the unequal power dynamic are not as obvious as they once were. (If you are unclear what I mean, just take your white buddy and try to catch a cab . . . separately. . .and see who gets picked up. Or drive two expensive cars while dressed in workout clothes . . . separately . . . and see who is stopped by police. Or flip through magazines and see whose image is held up as being the height of beauty. For example.)

During the last 40+ years, Black/white “buddy” movies have moved to the center of public consciousness, fostering the myth that “racism is no longer an issue” and that we can “all just get along.” And African Americans have assimilated into a white world view to the point they are willing to focus on the individual to the exclusion of the larger context in which we all live -– one that advantages whites and disadvantages African Americans and other people of color.

There is much talk from many white people –- and many African Americans -- about racism being individual “hate” that would dissipate if only we could “change hearts.” And while waiting another 100 – 400 years for that change might be acceptable for those who hold privilege, for those who don’t –- and for their children and children’s children and children’s children’s children -- that is a mighty long time to wait.

Again, African Americans: if your focus is on judging people by only their individual identity while ignoring their place in the larger group identity power structure and Amerikkkan context -- which many white people and some African Americans promote -- and if you believe that people should only be held accountable for their individual actions while ignoring their role in the larger Amerikkkan context -– which many white people and some African Americans promote -- then a reasonable question for each of us to ask our white friends and family is:

“If you love me as you say you do and if I am your friend as you say I am, then look at my reality and ask yourself: what are you doing to advance racial justice for me and mine so that we can have the unearned advantages that you and yours have and have always had in this country?”

And if the answer is nothing more tangible or weighty than “I read the speeches of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and I celebrate Kwanzaa and I listen to rap and hip-hop music and I have Black friends” -- or some version thereof -- then maybe you need to reevaluate the relationship and the role you have chosen to play in it.

And maybe even hold “your” white people accountable for their actions and speech instead of letting them hide behind their friendship with you. After all, accountability is a two-way street. African Americans are always being urged to be “accountable” for the problems we have in our community. I’m all for that . . . and for others understanding that many of the problems currently in our communities result from generations of institutional racial oppression and it is incumbent upon us to hold this country –- and those who continue to benefit economically, socially, educationally, etc. -- accountable, too.

And that includes our white friends and family.

Moving on, let’s talk about the following:

• Being “too heavenly bound to do any earthly good.”

The Black church was the vanguard of social activism/racial justice efforts up until the 1960s – 1970s.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen now that we hide behind our religion and use spirituality as an excuse to retreat from the fight for justice -– now that we are more materially and physically comfortable than our predecessors.

We buy into the “mainstream” concept that “forgiveness” and “racial reconciliation” are the ultimate goals that will usher in a colorblind society of true brotherhood/sisterhood and that a call for anything else –- either as significant as the justice of reparations or as innocuous as an apology for past and current racial oppression -- is “un-Christian” and “racially divisive.”

Forgiveness is great and something that we all need, but repeatedly “forgiving” in the face of the same continuing oppression without working to change it and to obtain justice is just . . . well, you supply the word.

But the one thing it does not strike me as is spiritual.

And while I assume that all of us want to be “heavenly bound,” while we are on Earth, let us do some “earthly good.” It is not just about us, but about those who come after us.

Are you satisfied with where we are on issues of race and racial oppression? If not, we’ve all got some work to do.

Stop hiding behind spirituality to give our white friends and family a free pass in conversations about racism/white supremacy and the ways in which they are manifesting that and/or their white privilege.

Stop taking on those other African Americans and people of color when they question the actions/behavior of your white friends and family. Sometimes it feels like we are more comfortable and feel freer to fight among ourselves than to fight together for a justice that would benefit us all.

Let’s hold white friends and family as accountable for their actions and let’s be as quick to “jump in their Kool-Aid” with as much fervor and passion as we demonstrate in criticizing and correcting each other.

Accountability is part of being spiritual and righteous. And accountability is not just “a Black thang” to be dragged out when talking about our own and tucked away like we’d be whupped if we demand it of others.

If our Ancestors did that, we’d still be in chains.

Sometimes, My Beloved People, the hearts and minds we first have to change are our own.

Moving Forward,


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